The platitude of Excellence

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For the last two years in my school I have the heard the word ‘excellence’ mentioned at every start of every term. It is what my school aspires to. It is what as a teacher I must deliver through my teaching. I must demand it from my students in their learning and in turn they all must gain excellent results. Anything less than excellent is a failure and not good enough. But I’m still not sure what the hell excellence is. Not once in the last 2 years has anyone told the school community what it means. It’s got so bad that when a teacher mentions it in an assembly, or lesson or when admonishing a student, the response is mirth. When a cornerstone of your school becomes a source of amusement to the student population, you have created an platitude.

I think Karl Anders Ericsson has a lot to answer for. Anders Ericsson is a Swedish Psychologist who has a fascination with the highest levels of performance and achievement in sports, games, arts and science. His seminal work ‘The Road to Excellence’ which shares research into the acquisition of expert performance has spawned a whole series of popular non-fiction books such as Outliers, Bounce and the Talent Code. These books look at and try to describe what it requires to become excellent. They simplify Anders Ericsson’s research so a layman such as myself can understand it. Due to the simplification and popularisation of research we get misconceptions about what excellence is and how it can be achieved. One of those misconceptions comes from a piece of work Anders Ericsson co authored and which looked at the expertise of musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Malcolm Gladwell cited this piece of work in his book, Outliers, and coined the term ‘10,000 hour rule’. This rule basically says if you engage in 10,000 hour of deliberate and purposeful practice then you can potentially achieve excellence. Suddenly all of us can achieve excellence through practice. If this area interests you then you can find a far better review of it from Fiona McQuarrie.

Students have questioned me about excellence. ‘Can I be excellent in everything I do?’ ‘Can everyone be excellent?’ ‘Is excellence at all times physically possible?’ ‘Does excellence just mean A*’s?’ I didn’t have the answers for them, as I don’t understand the shared vision of excellence within the school. If we aren’t clear with what excellence means then I feel it can lead to an unhealthy obsession on results. This obsession can heap huge doses of stress and anxiety on students. It may be even setting them up to fail.

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If we are going to use words like ‘excellence’ within school as a vision, we need to make it explicit. I’m not talking about a shared language, but a clear sharing of what it means. The cynic in me probably agrees with the students that what excellence really means is the amount of A*s they can achieve at GCSE and A-Level. That’s probably because it’s easy to measure and publicise to Governors, parents and OFSTED . As very few students ever reach that level, is it a realistic to demand excellence for them all? For me personally I think excellence is a myth. Therefore this year I have started telling students what I think excellence means, and have got the rest of my department to buy into it. So what is our message to our students?

Excellence does not exist. There is only ever striving towards excellence. This is an attitude that means you are willing to be open that you can improve if you desire to. If you do though, it will require dedication and it will probably be hard-work. If you utter the words ‘I can’t’, it must always be followed the word ‘yet’. Failure is part of being excellent, in fact it is a key ingredient, and that failure and quitting are two very different things. I also believe that excellence comes from committing to something beyond your own self interest. Even that sounds like a lot of platitudes put together but we have to start somewhere that isn’t a lie nor not achievable.

Other staff have heard me say these things to students and have picked me up on it. ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’ and ‘you don’t understand what excellence means’ I’ve been told by my colleagues. That probably may be true. However until we have a clear understanding of what ‘excellence’ is in the context of our school and can clearly and regularly communicate that to each other and to the students, it will remain another platitude within the school community; empty and without meaning.

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